The Mac Power User/User Disconnect

March 22nd, 2010

Back in the 1990s, as Apple struggled to build an industrial strength operating system to take it into the 21st century, they were exhorted to make sure preemptive multitasking was implemented. In those days, Macs had cooperative multitasking, which meant that each app had to play nicely with other apps and make sure they didn’t use too many resources when not frontmost.

Now in the real world, the Classic Mac OS worked pretty well. Sure there were times the system would come crashing down and you had to restart. There were times when it would just get so damned slow, you couldn’t get any productive work done. That usually happened when lots of apps were opened and the primitive virtual memory system was working overtime swapping code from hard drive to RAM and back again.

It was so bad, you had to wonder why Macs were so heavily used for content creation. But, wait a minute! In the real world, only power users cared. For regular people, so long as your Mac could run your favorite apps with decent performance and without crashing too often, the fineries of the operating system’s plumbing didn’t make a difference.

But you had to care about what the Mac OS lacked. The tech pundits told you so, and how can you ignore them?

Certainly the ongoing soap opera over Copland — that failed operating system project — made it seem as if Apple was doomed on the spot if they didn’t change. True, they got to the point of hemorrhaging loads of money, but due to other reasons, including poor promotion, poor product planning, and a proliferation of models that would make Dell proud.

As you know, even after Apple bought NeXT, and Steve Jobs returned to the fold, it took several years to build Mac OS X. At first, Apple tried to take the original NeXT OS, make it look more Mac-like, and get it out the door. But developers balked, because they didn’t want to be forced to rebuild all their apps in a very different programming language. When the likes of Adobe and Microsoft and loads of lesser companies said no, Apple got the message and created Carbon and the Aqua interface to create at least a decent simulation of the Mac OS.

Even then, the first concerns expressed after Mac OS X landed — other than the expected complaints about performance and various instabilities — were about the loss of certain features the power users demanded. From a configurable Apple menu to the legacy WindowShade feature, where a single click collapses a window to the title bar rather than shrink with a visual flourish to the Dock, the list of what you lost was endless. Yes, I know you can get these and more from third party utility developers.

At the same time, I got to talk with lots of regular Mac users as Mac OS X matured, and I can’t recall anyone clamoring for those features. Yes, our Comments section offered suggestions of one sort or another, but what portion of the overall Mac community ever concerned themselves over what was lost?

That takes us to the iPhone. When it arrived, you read endless commentaries about the features Apple must add yesterday. Some, such as cut, copy and paste, made loads of sense and I’m not altogether convinced that Apple was right in giving this capability a lower priority than loads of others. I chafed at its lack, and I’m glad it’s here, although the implementation is still somewhat flaky.

Multitasking remains front and center. Other smartphones have it. Why not Apple? Why are the interface police keeping this important feature from our grasp? Is this not one of those arbitrary power grabs in which Apple engages for reasons we cannot fathom, perhaps because they just want to exert higher levels of control on their user base?

Of course, such suspicions don’t make a bit of sense. I mean, if Apple felt they could offer multitasking efficiently for the apps they didn’t write, and that most users would even care, they would have done it long before now. There would be no delay. It would be there, front and center!

The real issue is that the tech writing community doesn’t routinely conduct scientific surveys of a full cross-section of the user base to figure out what real people want. At best, they’re just guessing, or perhaps talking amongst themselves to gauge public reaction.

No, I don’t mean those informal polls that you see on many Web sites, where you just click and vote. That’s a random poll as far from scientific as you can get. I don’t want to prejudge the results either, but I bet that if you asked about many of the iPhone and Mac OS X features that the power users demand, you will get a “What’s that?” response most of the time.

But Apple knows its market, and they understand quite well what features to add to their products and, more important, which ones to omit or postpone until a better implementation is devised. Yes, folks, let’s give them the benefit of knowing something for once.

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13 Responses to “The Mac Power User/User Disconnect”

  1. Tom B says:

    On Mac OS classic:

    It had poor memory management and would hang sometimes. I wouldn’t compare Macs of that vintage to UNIX workstations, like those from Sun. But, compared to Win95, WinMe, Win2000– Mac Classic was pretty stable. having said that, I’m glad it is gone and I have no nostalgia for it.

    On the iPhone:

    I hate Flash, and unlike the pundits, I agree with Job’s decision to jettison it as an obsolete technology, just as he jettisoned the floppy drive, also to much grousing by pundits.

    As for multitasking– USERS seem to be using their iPhones quite well, thank you. With that kind of a feature, Apple keeps it out until/unless they reach a point where they “nail” their implementation. Good for them. Get it right– or mostly right– before you ship!

  2. Louis Wheeler says:

    Christ, Gene. I had to read this article five times. I didn’t get at what point you were driving at until the last eleven words. You had too many statements without a central clarifying theme. The article was scatter brained.

    Your point in the last sentence was “Apple knows what it is doing, even though it won’t tell us what its plans are. We must trust Apple.” Gene, that requires too much faith. I can trust in God but no earthly organization.

    The Classic Mac OS was fine for its time as a stand alone disk system. Cooperative multitasking worked fine with well behaved applications. The problem was that Apple had to contend with Microsoft. Steve Wozniak said that the mere presence of Internet Explorer on a Mac could crash the Classic OS; IE didn’t even need to be running.

    This meant that Apple had to develop a multi-user, modular, object oriented operating system in self defense. Apple repeatedly failed to achieve that; Pink, Taligent, Copland and Gershwin either failed or were vaporware. How could I place my trust in that?

    Part of the problem was that Apple failed to plan. The Lisa OS had protected memory and preemptive multi-tasking. Sure, it couldn’t run on the original Macintosh hardware because of a lack of ram and slow processor speed, but it could run on a 68020 chip which was cheap enough by 1987.

    Why didn’t Apple switch then t the Lisa OS? That would have given Apple an upward migration path. The problem was that Steve Jobs had already been booted out of Apple by that time and the board of directors were milking the Apple II and the Mac for all they could get.

    Also, the developers had locked Apple into a losing game where it couldn’t migrate upwards. The developers were placing hardware calls and Apple didn’t end that practice until MacOS 8.6. Steve was back by then.

    The Classic OS was around for a long time and it developed its quirks which its users often liked. The problem with keeping the same software for 10+ years is that when you are, finally, forced to migrate it becomes that much harder. Users resist the necessary changes. The company knows it will lose market share.

    Microsoft is behind that black ball now; it is a stand alone disk system which was never designed to withstand the dangers on the Internet. The way that Microsoft protects itself from criticism is to confuse the issue with FUD. It redirects its problems onto Apple. It has its tech pundits obsess about false issues.

    Mac OSX has no security problems in comparison to Windows. Hence, it needs no anti-virus software. The Windows OS isn’t protected from attack by Anti-virus software. All that does is tell you when you are already compromised. Yet, we see endless stories about how Mac OSX is only protected by “Security by Obscurity” and that Mac OSX will be hit, very hard, one of these days. No prudent person will say that this will never happen, but it is highly unlikely.

    Microsoft’s pundits nitpick at Apple’s products to diminish their success. Copy and paste was nice to get on the iPhone, but there were many other issues ahead of it. Some things won’t come to the iPhone until the hardware improves: a full Unix permission system is one. That will kill jail breaking.

    The lack of third party multi-tasking is another. I believe that Apple should cave in on this and allow people to set which apps can multi-task. That way, if a user runs down their battery or bogs down their system, the onus is placed on them.

    If you were trying to make the point that the tech pundits are often biased, paid off, maladroit and hypercritical of Apple, Gene, then why didn’t you say so? You were trying to go after too many points and didn’t handle any of them well. The resulting confusion is not your readers fault.

    • @Louis Wheeler, Simple. Power users demand certain features, and regular people don’t care. I felt a few examples would drive the point home. Have a nice day.


      • Louis Wheeler says:

        It was the quality of the writing which I complained about, Gene. Normally, I enjoy your articles, but not this time. You made me work too hard.

        I felt that you hadn’t given enough thought about what you wanted to say. You were not persuasive.

        Apple’s history is rather complex. Many interpretations can be drawn from it; interesting interpretations. Why so many people objected to the move from Classic OS to Mac OSX is good article fodder. Who they are and what values they hold would be interesting if you could provide us with real people and quotes from them. It felt as though you expected me to know who they are. The problem is that I’ve known different types of power users in Design, Graphics and Education. Their needs were, often enough, opposed.

        Please don’t take my remarks as disrespect. Honest criticism is invaluable; it keeps us from persisting in error. It makes us reexamine our positions if we are intellectually honest.

  3. Andrew says:

    @ Tom B

    Windows 2000, NT and XP were miles ahead of Classic Mac OS for stability and memory management. NT-based windows has true preemptive multitasking, and is not to be confused with Win9x which is basically DOS with a pretty cover. Win9x and Classic Mac OS were contemporaries and had advantages and disadvantages compared to one another. NT is far better than either, and OS X is (arguably) better still.

  4. Peter says:

    “As for multitasking– USERS seem to be using their iPhones quite well, thank you.”

    I agree, but I wonder how much of that is ignorance.

    I’ve been a Mac person since around 1985 (as I say, my first Mac was a Macintosh). I remember Switcher and how cool it was. Then came along MultiFinder and it was perfect. And co-operative multitasking wasn’t a problem, as long as everyone co-operated. I used my co-operative multitasking Mac quite well, thank you.

    I have an iPhone and I use it quite well, thank you. I have never run up against any limitation. Of course, one reason I haven’t downloaded Pandora is that I can’t use it in the background. But I somehow survive without Pandora on my iPhone.

    I was ignorant.

    Of course, in my office I’m the sole iPhone user. BlackBerry and Android rule our office. And since the developers in the office use Android, I get treated daily to a “look at this really cool thing my phone does!” Daily, I see the advantages of being able to run more than one App at a time, regardless of who wrote it.

    So I’m not ignorant anymore. Much like the first time I used Mac OS X and I didn’t have to think about OmniWeb downloading a page in the background behind some other application because everything switched so seemlessly. I’ve seen a better way in other mobile OSes. And I start saying, “Boy, I can’t wait until my iPhone does that!”

    The question is, when my contract is over in 2011 and Apple still doesn’t support multitasking, will I be quite so willing to wait? Apple and it’s fawning iPhone fanatics can continue to say how much it doesn’t matter, but the longer it isn’t there the more “behind” Apple looks. Much as Mac OS looked “behind” Windows 95, no matter how many “Windows 95 = Mac ’89” bumper stickers Apple printed up.

  5. AdamC says:


    A person can use only one app at a time and if you feel the grass is greener on the other side by all means go.

  6. Thomas says:

    Hi Gene,

    I agree with your, “If they can’t nail it, they don’t do it.” comment, and I think it’s why there is no camera in the iPad. I envision Steve trying to have a video chat with someone during testing, holding the tablet in one hand, and the image in the camera bouncing and zooming around, hardly ever aimed at his face. Also he noticed that he tended to hold the tablet at an angle, so a camera aimed straight back was looking at the ceiling behind his head. Then they tried a camera that was tilted downward, but if he held the tablet more vertically it was pointed at his crotch! °L° Whoops! Out came the camera, until they can get it right!

    Thanks for the insights!

    – Thomas

  7. Andrew says:

    Why does the iPhone have to be better at everything? Making one product better at everything than all competitors will make that one product so complex that it becomes the worst in the class.

    The iPhone cannot multitask 3rd party apps. Okay, but how many other phones are also a real iPod and have massive game libraries on the appstore?

    I have a competing phone, the BlackBerry Storm2 (I’m on Verizon, no iPhone). I also own an iPod touch. The iPod Touch cannot multitask 3rd party apps either, but I never really cared. It is a great entertainment machine, and I wish I could combine it with my phone and not be wifi dependent.

    The BlackBerry is a great phone too, with some very cool features that beat the iPhone equivalent. I can and do run Pandora in the background. I have a unified mailbox and far more robust Exchange support through BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express, which is now free. Great product.

    Of course, I have to do more work making videos play on the Storm2 and forget about playing my iTunes subscription videos. It has a decent music player that actually syncs with iTunes (licensed, not hacked like Palm’s), but won’t play protected content, though thanks to iTunes plus I no longer have very much. There is BlackBerry AppWorld with some great games, but for every great game on the Storm2, there are hundreds, if not thousands available for the iPhone, and usually for less money or free.

    Given the choice, I’d take the iPhone. I didn’t get the choice, and the BlackBerry is a decent substitute. I enjoy the BlackBerry’s advantages, but I understand that if iPhone one-upped them in each of those ways, it wouldn’t be an iPhone anymore.

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